Marika Theros and Sahar Halaimzai investigate the thinking behind the disastrous international withdrawal from Afghanistan and its potential to cause further crises
Two years after the withdrawal of international forces and the Taliban’s takeover plunged Afghanistan into compounding humanitarian, security and human rights crises, President Biden’s recent remarks on Taliban ‘help’ to US counter-terrorism efforts against Al-Qaeda in the country struck a jarring note. Days later, the chair of the UK House of Commons’ Defence Select Committee, Tobias Ellwood, praised the Taliban for improved security and reduced corruption while admonishing critics of the Taliban’s policies of gender apartheid ‘from afar’ — overlooking widespread protests by women in Afghanistan over the past two years. These statements not only ignore the abject realities and experiences of most Afghans under Taliban rule, but they also exemplify a troubling change in direction of western policies that risks exacerbating instability worldwide.
In this blogpost, we show how western political narratives and orientalist assumptions about Afghanistan continue to legitimize the flawed decision-making that underpinned the US–Taliban Doha agreement and the collapse of the Afghan republic with devastating consequences for the Afghan people. A continued failure to critically examine the flaws in US peacemaking risks their repetition and will have far-reaching implications for future international conflicts. The West’s exclusion of Afghans in negotiating with the Taliban and its sidelining of Afghan knowledge, expertise and policy experience has had profoundly damaging real-world consequences. As co-directors of the recently launched LSE/Peacerep Afghanistan research network, we emphasize the importance of centring the knowledge and views of those directly affected by conflict in global policy-making.
An exit strategy disguised as a peace deal
We argue, both here and in a recently published article, that western policy discourses and US-led mediation prioritized international withdrawal over peace, altering the conflict and peacemaking landscape in Afghanistan in the process. New western-produced narratives reduced a complex conflict into a binary civil war between a corrupt Afghan republic supported by a detached urban elite, and a rural Taliban rebellion representing the majority of Afghans. This oversimplification prompted inaccurate assessments, silenced Afghan voices and legitimated the Taliban. This, in turn, ultimately justified a coercive US approach that sold the US–Taliban agreement as the only pathway to intra-Afghan peace even as the Taliban pursued a winning military strategy on the ground.
For Afghans, the promise of a more moderate Taliban 2.0 has been dashed. While Afghans suffer increasing repression and poverty, a recent meeting in Doha saw US officials praise the Taliban for improvements in stabilizing the economy, reducing opium production and halting large-scale terrorist attacks while paying lip-service to the grave human rights situation. A closer look reveals misleading data. A report by Afghan economist, Omar Joya, lists numerous caveats about overly rosy economic reporting on post-crisis Afghanistan. Another report raises serious questions about the lack of information on where the Taliban is spending its increased revenues and notes that an increased portion of the Taliban budget is directed to the security ministries.
Reshaping international engagement
Of further grave concern is the West’s new approach to international peace and security emerging in the wake of the failed international intervention in Afghanistan, and its potentially dire consequences for millions of people living in conflict-affected contexts. This retreat from liberal peacebuilding rests on orientalist assumptions that statebuilding is incompatible with non-western cultures in states like Afghanistan. Instead, emphasis has shifted to negotiating narrow elite settlements with armed actors to produce stability, with little consideration for the real governance, economic and security drivers of conflict. Rather than question the violent and problematic practices of the ‘war on terror’, the return to a narrow focus on western security interests will likely provoke further conflict and extremism. In Afghanistan, the US switched its counterterror partner from the Afghan republic to the Taliban, and today lauds improved security in the country, while women, activists, former soldiers, teachers and others are attacked, disappeared and killed. However misguided and ill-informed, this pivot represents a new western approach to international conflicts that relies on long-distance airstrikes and limited security agreements to contain threats to the West with little consideration of the consequences for civilian populations.
Today, the West finds itself confronted with multiple threats of collapse, crises and coups across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Though these crises may appear unrelated, they expose the diminishing capacity of the West and the wider international community to achieve favourable outcomes in globalized conflicts. At the same time, powerful states are increasingly intervening unilaterally in conflict and peacemaking processes as a means of competing for influence rather than in pursuit of peace.
The Afghan case offers a stark example of how western powers mishandled a complex conflict with devastating consequences. The sidelining of allies in a deal brokered with the Taliban behind closed doors has diminished trust in western approaches and promises. As the repercussions of the Afghan conflict continue to unfold, the West must reflect on its approach to international affairs.
Only by foregrounding local knowledge, prioritizing comprehensive engagement and adopting a focus on long-term commitment will the West redefine its role as a global leader and contribute to achieving equitable outcomes in international conflicts. Conversely, the West’s current self-interested approach to international intervention risks devastating consequences for those living in conflict-affected contexts.